So we fast forward and the Gators are 6-6 since that trendy start. Instead of talking about how unselfish the Gators are, everyone is pointing out the team's numerous flaws --- they get outrebounded a lot; they don't finish close games all that well; they don't have enough depth on the perimeter and they have to play point guard Taurean Green way too many minutes. In reality, those are the same issues the Gators had back when they were undefeated, only now people talk as if the flaws are a recent discovery.
Yet, as the Gators go into Lexington today to face Kentucky (12 noon, CBS) in the final regular season game, the flaws in Florida's team seem to be the hot topic, not the fact that the Gators are 23-6 (9-6 SEC East) and playing for a first round bye in next week's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville.
"The same issues we have now are the ones we had when we were 17-0," said Coach Billy Donovan
When the Gators were 17-0 everyone was talking about a number two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now that Florida is 23-6, talk is that Florida has too many flaws and too much inconsistency to expect much more than a six or seven seed in the Big Dance. It doesn't seem to matter that the Gators had a realistic chance to win in five of the six losses and that a play here or there could have made all the difference in the world. It doesn't seem to matter that the one game the Gators didn't have a realistic chance to win in the last 30 seconds was on the road and they still only lost by six points.
"When you win everything is great and when you lose everything is bad," said Donovan. "People don't take the time to look at why we lost."
When the Gators began the season, ranked as low as number 75 nationally by some pundits, conventional wisdom was that Florida had lost too much off last year's Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship team to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth straight year. Losing David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson left the Gators with questions about who would score and who would rebound. Then there was the matter of starting four sophomores and one junior to go with a razor thin bench.
Twenty wins for the eighth straight year was considered possible, but the conventional wisdom is that the 20 wins would be earned in the NIT, not the NCAA Tournament. But instead of the NIT, the Gators are NCAA-bound and they're 23-6.
"I would love to see one team in the country the country that has lost what we lost and are playing as young as we're playing that have as many wins as we have," said Donovan.
What makes the win total even more amazing is the fact that the Gators are playing with nine scholarship players due to an injury that forced freshman Jimmie Sutton to redshirt and Derwin Kitchen's inability to gain admission to UF. The Gators are playing with a four-man rotation at the power forward and center slots. Two freshmen share the backup load for the small forward, shooting guard and point guard.
Somehow the Gators have found ways to skirt the depth issues for most of the year. They've had only a few games where there was serious foul trouble and somehow they've worked their way through a couple of injuries to starters.
Corey Brewer sprained an ankle in the Tennessee game in Knoxville and it took him a few games after that to get untracked. Lee Humphrey fell off his bicycle and dislocated his shoulder before the Ole Miss game in Oxford. It's only the last two games that he's been able to show that he's pretty much recovered.
Add in the injury factors and 23-6 should sound pretty darn good.
"I'm shocked and unbelievably surprised that we are 23-6," said Donovan. "We obviously lost a lot last year. If you told me before the year that Brewer would be out and wouldn't be himself for four or five games with an ankle sprain and Lee Humphrey was going to dislocate his shoulder, I would be wow, we have some serious issues."
Yes, the Gators do have some serious issues, but they also are a team that has somehow found ways to win in spite of all the flaws and in spite of the injuries. They have a chance to secure a two seed in the SEC Tournament today in Lexington. A win and the Gators don't have to play in the SEC Tournament until Friday. A loss and they play on Thursday which means a four-game grind to win the championship. The stakes are the same for Kentucky. Win and the next game's on Friday. Lose and it's a Thursday start.
Being that it's Senior Day at Kentucky and the Wildcats are 4-1 in their last five SEC games, the Gators are underdogs even though they have a better record (23-6 to 19-10) and won the first matchup in Gainesville by a blowout. But the underdog role is familiar for Florida. It served the Gators well when they were making that march to a 17-0 record. Perhaps being the underdog again will be just what Florida needs to go on another winning run.
"Before the season began there was nobody on our bandwagon," said Donovan. "We have to earn our way right now. We have to go out and prove ourselves. I think we're in the same exact boat we were in at the beginning of the season."